The Long Tail

The Long Tail by Chris Anderson

Book: The Long Tail by Chris Anderson Read Free Book Online
Authors: Chris Anderson
And then there are the millions of entries that it simply doesn’t—and can’t, given its editorial process—have. But Wikipedia can scale itself to include those and many more. And it is updated constantly.
    The advantage of probabilistic systems is that they benefit from the wisdom of the crowd and as a result can scale nicely both in breadth and depth. But because they do this by sacrificing absolute certainty on the microscale, you need to take any single result with a grain of salt. Wikipedia should be the first source of information, not the last. It should be a site for information exploration, not the definitive source of facts.
    The same is true for blogs, no single one of which is authoritative. Blogs are a Long Tail, and it is always a mistake to generalize about the quality or nature of content in the Long Tail—it is, by definition, variable and diverse. But collectively blogs are proving more than an equal to mainstream media. You just need to read more than one of them before making up your own mind.
    Likewise for Google, which seems both omniscient and inscrutable. It makes connections that you or I might not, because they emerge naturally from math on a scale we can’t comprehend. Google is arguably the first company to be born with the alien intelligence of the Web’s “massive-scale” statistics hardwired into its DNA. That’s why it’s so successful, and so seemingly unstoppable.
    Author Paul Graham puts it like this:
The Web naturally has a certain grain, and Google is aligned with it. That’s why their success seems so effortless. They’re sailing with the wind, instead of sitting becalmed praying for a business model, like the print media, or trying to tack upwind by suing their customers, like Microsoft and the record labels. Google doesn’t try to force things to happen their way. They try to figure out what’s going to happen, and arrange to be standing there when it does.
    The Web is the ultimate marketplace of ideas, governed by the laws of big numbers. That grain Graham sees is the weave of statistical mechanics, the only logic that such really large systems understand. Perhaps someday we will, too.

    As a whole, Wikipedia is arguably the best encyclopedia in the world: bigger, more up-to-date, and in many cases deeper than even Britannica . But at the individual entry level, the quality varies. Along with articles of breathtaking scholarship and erudition, there are plenty of “stubs” (placeholder entries) and even autogenerated spam.
    In the popular entries with many eyes watching, Wikipedia shows a remarkable resistance to vandalism and ideological battles. One study by IBM found that the mean repair time for damage in high-profile Wikipedia entries such as “Islam” is less than four minutes. This is not the work of the professional encyclopedia police. It is simply the emergent behavior of a Pro-Am swarm of self-appointed curators. Against all expectations, the system works brilliantly well. And as Wikipedia grows, this rapid self-repairing property will spread to more entries.
    The point is not that every Wikipedia entry is probabilistic, but that the entire encyclopedia behaves probabilistically. Your odds of getting a substantive, up-to-date, and accurate entry for any given subject are excellent on Wikipedia, even if every individual entry isn’t excellent.
    To put it another way, the quality range in Britannica goes from, say, 5 to 9, with an average of 7. Wikipedia goes from 0 to 10, with anaverage of, say, 5. But given that Wikipedia has twenty times as many entries as Britannica , your chances of finding a reasonable entry on the topic you’re looking for are actually higher on Wikipedia.
    What makes Wikipedia really extraordinary is that it improves over time, organically healing itself as if its huge and growing army of tenders were an immune system, ever vigilant and quick to respond to anything that threatens the organism. And

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